R.L. Burnside was born in Layfayette County, near
Oxford, Mississippi in 1926. As a young man R.L. moved North into the
neighboring Marshall County and began sharecropping. Inspired by John
Lee Hooker's '50s hit "Boogie Chillun'," R.L. began singing blues and
playing guitar. In addition to the Hooker 45 rpm there were other local
forces that influenced R.L as well, such as Mississippi Fred McDowell
and Ranie Burnette. Fed up with the hopelessness of sharecropping,
Burnside migrated to Chicago in hopes of finding economic opportunity.
Chicago did not work out. In the span of one month R.L.'s father,
brother and uncle were murdered. Check out "Hard Time Killing Floor" and
the closing "R.L.'s Story" for R.L's take on his early years in Chicago.
Around 1959 he returned to Mississippi to again work the farms and raise
a family. He also started to play music at night and on weekends.
first recordings appeared on a 1967 Arhoolie compilation. Although R.L.
preferred electric guitar, the fashion of the day dictated that he be
recorded acoustically. These recordings earned Burnside enough of a
reputation to play festivals and tours at home and abroad. Throughout
the '70s and '80s R.L. played with a family band consisting of sons
Joseph and Daniel as well as son-in-law Calvin Jackson, known as the
Sound Machine. Though a local favorite R.L. and the Sound Machine were
barely known outside of North Mississippi.
This all began to change for R.L. in the early '90s when the documentary
film based on author Robert Palmer's book Deep Blues featured R.L. as
one of its highlights. Subsequently Palmer produced R.L.'s Too Bad Jim
for the fledgling Fat Possum label. Along with Junior Kimbrough's All
Night Long, Too Bad Jim was one of the most important and influential
blues albums of the '90s.
Too Bad Jim brought R.L. to the attention of post-punk musician Jon
Spencer. R.L. toured extensively with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
and this led to the collaboration between the two, the result was A Ass
Pocket of Whiskey, a teenage party record. Ass Pocket of Whiskey made
R.L an unlikely champion in the indie rock world.
In 1997 R.L. released Mr. Wizard, Fat Possum's debut record on their new
distribution label Epitaph. The album featured R.L's hardcore touring
mates, grandson Cedric Burnside and adopted son
In 1998 R.L. released Come On In, which pitted his raw blues against
modern electronica, courtesy of producer Tom Rothrock (Beck, Elliot
Smith). The album was a critical and commercial success, and one of its
tracks, "It's Bad You Know," became a respectable radio hit and was
featured in The Sopranos and on its soundtrack.
It's the year 2001 and R.L. Burnside is still breaking down boundaries,
and bringing the blues to where it's never gone before. Wish I Was In
Heaven Sitting Down is R.L.'s story. Listen up.